The science of sleep is often mentioned in the media, with willing victims having their sleep observed or deprived in dedicated sleep clinics. The difficulty for researchers is that sleep is controlled by the brain, and scientists are still trying to understand how the brain works!
Sleep is a natural and necessary state which we all need to experience in order for our bodies to function. While asleep, we have reduced consciousness, experience far less sensory activity and nearly all voluntary muscles are inactive. This reduction in activity allows our bodies to devote more energy to maintain and repair areas such as the immune, nervous and musculoskeletal systems and allows time for the brain to rest and help store memories. How much sleep a person needs varies and also depends on factors such as season and age. 7 to 9 hours seems to be right for most people. The key measure of whether we are getting enough sleep is whether or not we wake feeling refreshed.
REM (rapid eye movement) sleep accounts for 20-25% of total sleep time. It is during REM that dreaming occurs, muscles are least active and the brain consumes more oxygen than when we are awake. Without REM sleep, our ability to learn complex tasks is greatly decreased. We sleep in cycles (usually around 5 per night) and arrive at REM approximately every 90 minutes. The rest of sleeping time is taken up by NREM (non rapid eye movement) sleep which is divided into 3 varying stages of consciousness between wakefulness and slow-wave sleep.
At Woodland Herbs, we have many customers asking for options to help them with their sleeping difficulties. Insomnia affects 30% of us at some point during our lifetime, and for some it can be a complaint that lasts for many years. Whether you are insomniac, jet lagged, or just have a temporary sleep issue there are many natural remedies that may help you to achieve a good night’s rest.
In the shop we generally ask a couple of questions to help find out the reasons for sleeplessness and then the appropriate remedy for the individual.
1) What is the main issue: Do you have difficulty falling asleep or are you waking up through the night?
People who have difficulty falling asleep may be greatly affected by: environmental factors such as the room not being dark enough or too much noise, too much caffeine, or anxiety! Resolving this may be simple: wearing an eye mask or getting thicker curtains can increase the melotonin levels (see below), or replacing coffee with a non-caffeinated herbal tea, such as limeflower or lemon balm. Insomnia due to anxiety has a number of traditional remedies. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) calms an active mind, available in dried herb, tablet or A. Vogel tincture, it is particularly useful if you are finding it difficult to fall asleep due to thoughts turning over and over in their mind. The herbs hops (Humulus lupus) and Californian Poppy (Eschlotzia californica) are sedative and can also help with getting to sleep. The essential oils of Lavender or Roman Chamomile can also be helpful, helping to calm nerves, soothe an active worrying mind and relax the body. A couple of drops on a tissue on your pillow should be enough to aid restful sleep. Watch out though too much can be over stimulating!
Anxiety can also be a factor if you are waking through the night, especially if you wake with worries immediately on your mind. If this is the case use any of the remedies listed above. Other solutions for waking through the night can be distinguished by asking the next question…
2) If you wake during the night, what is the first thing you do, see or feel?
Understanding the factors which are contributing to insomnia can help find options to help. For example:
- Often people wake in the night because they need to go to the toilet. This may suggest a urinary system problem and the right remedy will depend on the situation.
- Waking due to either overheating or feeling cold would suggest a temperature control issue, cold sage (Salvia officinalis) tea may be appropriate if overheating is the problem or maybe an extra blanket if too cold.
- Restless legs, muscle cramps and pain can also disturb sleep. Magnesium or calcium supplements or massaging magnesium oil may help with the restless legs and muscle cramps. Pain will need specific treatments.
- Disturbances such as the light of dawn or an ambulance siren going past can affect sleep and heavier curtains, changing beds or even rooms can be a solution.
Stress can also be a factor for waking through the night. B Vitamins may be appropriate to reduce the build up of stress through the day, or the herb valerian (Valeriana officinalis) has been shown to physically relax the muscles as well as promote a deeper sleep.
Our bodies have a special mechanism to control physical, mental and behavioural activities based on day-time and night-time, called the circadian rhythm, which normally follows a 24 hour cycle. This rhythm affects many aspects of our bodily functions, for example: temperature, hormone release, digestion, sleeping and waking. Circadian rhythms are controlled by hormones within the body (e.g. melatonin), but are also influenced by the external environment such as light. The observation of these rhythms dates back to 13th century medical texts.
Circadian rhythms are very important in determining sleep patterns. An increase of melatonin makes us tired, this increase in melatonin can be triggered by a reduction of light (usually at night time). This means if you are a shift worker you may need to have good curtains in order to get a good sleep. Although supplemental melatonin is not available for sale in the UK, 5-HTP is available as supplement, and the body can convert 5-HTP into serotonin, which has a tranquilising effect, and can be converted into melatonin.
Other things to consider to help sleep
- Avoid stimulants in the evening e.g. coffee, tea, sugar, watching exciting/violent TV programmes.
- Try not to eat your evening meal after 7pm.
- Do something relaxing before bedtime e.g. a relaxing herb infused bath, drink a relaxing herbal tea such as lavender, limeflower (Tilea spp), German Chamomile (Matricaria recutica) or Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), or relax with a book or music.
- Have a regular bedtime/waking routine, allowing body clock to get used to timings.
- Snoring or blocked nasal passages can interfere with sleep, and remedies are available to help both these.
- L-Theanine, an extract of green tea, is often used to improve concentration as it calms and focuses the mind, and studies suggest it can enhance the quality of sleep (increasing time spent in REM and slow-wave sleep without increasing overall sleeping time) as it allows the mind to relax.
Jet Lag occurs because the body’s circadian rhythm is not synchronised with a new time. When our bodies travel through time zones, we gain or lose hours of the day and it takes time for our body clocks to adjust. Jet lag can make us feel groggy, tired and often disorientated. Some herbs used during the day to stay awake may help to normalise the body clock : Korean Ginseng (Panax ginseng) or Siberian Ginseng (Eleuitherococcus senticossus), Gotu kola (Centella asiastica) and Garlic. Going for walk or spending time outside can also help your system to adjust. Rosemary essential oil is stimulating both physically and psychologically and can help with feelings associated with jet lag. Some people can find 5-HTP helps them fall asleep more readily when arriving in their new country.
Cautions and Contraindication: While a lack of sleep is linked to tiredness, tiredness can also be a risk factor for high blood pressure, diabetes and a number of other conditions (e.g. sleep apnea). If you are unsure why you are tired talk to a professional.
If you have existing medical condition, are taking prescriptions or are pregnant or breastfeeding please consult a Doctor or medical herbalist for professional advice before using the remedies suggested here.